The Writer as Ruin: Wolfgang Hilbig
by Charles Prusik
If the rendering plant functions as the key representation of the disappearances that continue to haunt a divided Germany, Hilbig sets the plant into a metonymic relation with the deeper history of this violence. The rendering plant, which converts animals to soap through an act of reduction, is a substitution for the historical processes of domination that convert human beings into fungible material. This use of metonymic substitution does not so much represent or symbolize, however, the violence of past suffering—it instantiates a process of reduction through mimetic showing.
The recent publication of several works by Wolfgang Hilbig in English offers readers the chance to discover one of the most significant postwar German literary voices. Wolfgang Hilbig began writing around 1979, and the novels which have been published by Two Lines Press (in remarkable translations by Isabel Fargo Cole)—The Females, Old Rendering Plant, The Tidings of the Trees, ‘I,’ The Sleep of the Righteous, and, most recently, The Interim—were written in the years 1987-2002. An East German who lived in relative obscurity and worked in the boiler room of a factory, Wolfgang Hilbig explores the wounded landscapes of his country in a prose style that is dense with symbolism.
Hilbig draws from his war-torn upbringing in the coal-mining town of Meuselwitz; many of his novels are set in the small industrial towns of East Germany, with protagonists who are often self-imposed outcasts, figures seeking out marginal existences. After a lengthy period working as a writer in almost total obscurity, Hilbig won the Georg Büchner prize in 2002. His work ranges from critique that is primarily symbolic and figurative to more direct confrontations with the German Democratic Republic. Working as an independent writer who lived outside of the literary world, Hilbig developed a compellingly personal style that would explore the historical legacy of violence and resist the domination of his closed society.
Rich in references to the German Romantic traditions of Ludwig Tieck and E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hilbig’s writing has also been compared with the Gothic style of Poe. In many ways, his meandering sentences and attention to the thick mist of consciousness resemble the voice of Thomas Bernhard, though charged with a metaphysician’s sense for the peculiar details of materials—his novels are littered with objects and landscapes that seem to have their own autonomous lives. Although his spiraling sentences and preoccupation with nature and landscape recall the great, metaphysical Romanticism of the nineteenth century, Hilbig’s prose also passes into the surreal, pushing the limits of language and meaning. It is a prose that allows its objects and materials to emit their own qualities, using frequent shifts in perspective and nonlinearity in a disorienting amalgam that achieves something quite new. His central worry regards the possibility of grasping historical violence, the legibility of past suffering in the ruins of space, and, perhaps, the transmission of this domination in language.
Among the books published in English, Hilbig’s novella The Old Rendering Plant (1991) is his most completely realized. It is the story of a young boy’s discovery of a decaying coal plant, a site that seems to be connected to the disappearance of his town’s inhabitants. Exploring the inner connection between language, identity, and place, Hilbig uses interior monologues to navigate this terrain in elliptical, nonlinear flows of memory and observation. His use of materials, space, and memory recalls the naturalist travelogues of Adalbert Stifter and—perhaps, more recently—the novels of W.G. Sebald. In ‘I’ (1993) (a more conventional novel), he experiments with perspective by shifting from first to third person, but Old Rendering Plant is slighter in its destabilization of the subject. The materials of nature and industry are the essential ingredients of Old Rendering Plant, a work that finds far greater significance in the refuse of things than in plot. The elements of the land seem to emit their own spiritual qualities, and the cyclical movements in time blur the boundaries of consciousness. Opening with the observations of a child who explores the abandoned land surrounding a coal plant, the novel quickly subverts its position as fable, offering a disquieting array of shifts in time and place, the narrative jumping forwards and back twenty-five years as the protagonist returns to the plant, only to find it is not what he remembered. Techniques of sensory overload underlie the feeling of historical and political displacement that forms the center of Hilbig’s theme. In a prose that is as expressive as the ruins that punctuate the text, grotesque images of raw materials bleed into one another in a movement that threatens to abolish all traces of their form. The landscapes in Old Rendering Plant are ripe with sensory density; the land speaks in “snickers and whispers,” as if it is saturated with fear and paranoia. Charged with a life of their own, Hilbig’s landscapes are metaphysical substances that express themselves as moments in a deeper, more obscure process of ruination. “What I walked on couldn’t even be called earth,” the hero suggests, “this matter that buckled beneath my steps and sometimes seemed to sigh from its depths with a hollow reverberation” (33). Old Rendering Plant is about memory, decay, exile, and the hidden afterlife of violence that seems to store itself in the land. Here the stuff of milky water and industrial waste protrude along the narrator’s trail, haunting the landscape with the thick residue of death.
Hilbig’s prose recalls the borders of wakefulness, as consciousness passes into a dream, only to be recollected as the nightmare of history. This shifting play between inner and outer, past and present, affords the narrative a vertiginous quality as the points of passage in space and time obtain ever more disorienting properties. Reclaiming something of the Romanticist belief in spaces that live, his work returns us to a past that is now scarred, ruined. In Hilbig’s world, nettled brooks and mills rise up in view in a kind of substantial calamity. Old Rendering Plant creates a space for exploration, rumination, and return. It is a damaged landscape, torn and divided. Nature is not a home to be reclaimed—here the violence of state authority inscribes itself on the earth. As if seeking out the essential nature of matter, the novel asks us to find sense in the silence of things: “What were we really passing over: over silenced things, over vanished things, over the basic substance of ourselves, over the silence of our thoughts? Passing silently over our silence…?” (33). Hilbig is both a part of and a critic of the Romantic tradition—his writing suggests the fusion of metaphysical and historical evil, while holding the possibility of this fusion as errancy in suspense. The underlying, possibly metaphysical, unfreedom that Hilbig elicits seems to accompany the powerlessness of subjectivity, a dense undertow of fate that throws us into an indifferent future. Disappearance, it is noted, amounts to “reducing myself to the self predetermined for me, that wretched I living in expectation of the whole gigantic burden of the future in which it would be hopelessly trapped” (24). In a stream of consciousness that manages to capture the dense mist of memory, the novella seems to rest in a present that is buckling under the weight of its own pressure. Following a “milky brook” that runs along long stretches of farmland and meadows, the boy finds himself before an abandoned coal plant. He plays with his sword; he runs; he dreams. The members of his family are only dimly lit figures who bark orders—they seem to imitate the structure of authoritarianism that is their daily reality. The voice captures the blurry consciousness of childhood with remarkable facility; memory and dream run together in a kind of efflorescence. (It is easy to forget that the novella is written in the first person.) Hilbig plays with sensory transposition, fusing smells with visions, as if asking us whether the reality that we dominate is ever truly tamed. His taste for naturalism, however, is regularly punctuated by a palpable sense of the Gothic—shadows and materials slide into view as the reality of history asserts itself. In a dream, the boy imagines he’d “been tripped on the ramp by a revolting, slimy deposit,” he shudders as though he’d “touched the naked stuff of death” (13-14). If Hilbig’s prose allows the materials of the world to appear by a kind of immanent volition, it is equally a prose that wants to shatter the representational properties of language. Meaning, sense, and names seem to dissolve in a manner that resembles the plant’s oozing reductions. Can language reclaim the silenced material of our thinking, the vanished things passed over by natural and historical ruination? The narrator’s frequent musings echo something of this need to abolish names, to overcome language as a mere system of signs: “It was the dark hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts… a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly” (26).
Rumors circulate about the mill. It is said that “foreigners” from the East have settled there. Hilbig’s landscapes are never free from the country’s jingoist paranoia—there is no soil that can cover the scars of war. A prohibition accompanies the zone to the east—it is soon revealed to be a space where humans vanish. In the narrator’s childhood home, the names of missing persons are announced on the nightly news, a lulling monotony that recurs like the seasons. In Hilbig’s universe, the vanishings merge with the rhythms of nature; it is a universe where the anonymous violence of the state embeds itself in the soil, where it is felt in the oversaturated atmosphere. A looming feeling of unreality predominates in this landscape (the boy often wonders if he has vanished too). After returning to the plant, he confronts a billowing vapor that tastes like soap and smells like flesh. This milky substance, a “bubbling and steaming” emission that spills into the brook, infects the surrounding area with its industrial stench. Setting the names of the missing into an array of dense material associations, Hilbig explores the fungibility of persons and things, as the vanished are compared to the spiraling eddies in the brook. Germania II is the name of the plant, he notes, where the unknown workers toil in obscurity, rendering animals into soap fat. Slowly the fragments of the narrator’s life emerge; he suggests a life of obstinacy and rebellion in the face of a foreclosed future. He and his friends seek out only the “most wretched work,” scrubbing cellars and slaughterhouses on night shifts, not out of any identification with the proletariat, but out of a desire for obscurity (58-59). Later, as an adult, a moment of olfactory recollection triggers the memory of seeing workers. The area surrounding the mill is now wild and overgrown, though the scars of war remain. As a young man the narrator had dreamt of joining the workers at Germania II, where a life underground had promised some measure of freedom from surveillance. In a dazzling moment of synesthetic description, the narrator recalls the blue steam rising from the plant’s smokestacks, a “blue shimmer” that immediately conjures the milky surface beneath the stream, and finally breaks as the rotten smell that had once immured the surrounding area (62). Hilbig glides into surrealism as the descriptions of the rendering plant acquire increasingly freighted properties. Fat drips from the clouds above and toxic roofs “breathe and sob” (63). The workers of Germania II exist in an immediate relation to the essence of the earth, but this essence is permeated with death, or, as the narrator puts it, with “the substance of its exterminated species” (85). In a peculiar twist to all Romanticist notions of natural vitality, Hilbig’s land is a nature of “extinct matter” that infiltrates existence. In a scene that is overloaded in this metaphysics of death, the narrator walks through the territory surrounding the plant and chances upon a series of death-laden things, like the willow-leaves that “tast[e] of flesh,” or the drinking water that taste of “pelts and lice,” and the rough skins that taste of “smoke-stained tears” (86).
If the rendering plant functions as the key representation of the disappearances that continue to haunt a divided Germany, Hilbig sets the plant into a metonymic relation with the deeper history of this violence. The rendering plant, which converts animals to soap through an act of reduction, is a substitution for the historical processes of domination that convert human beings into fungible material. This use of metonymic substitution does not so much represent or symbolize, however, the violence of past suffering—it instantiates a process of reduction through mimetic showing. The plant thus recapitulates the idea of reduction; if the organizing concept of historical violence, of the reduction of individuals to dead matter, is referenced through a substitution of the concept with the plant, such an act of reference is as much an act of symbolic reduction as the plant’s conversion of animals into waste. The materials rendered here, witnessed as a kind of industrial substance of indeterminate kind, stand in for the manufactured silence of the murdered. But a certain degree of reflexivity emerges here, as Hilbig’s use of a concrete image that resembles the stored-up violence of the past asks us to consider whether language can ever shed its complicity with power and domination.
The final passages of Old Rendering Plant approach the question of whether past suffering can be witnessed and possibly redeemed. As Hilbig reaches the end of the novella, what has been misremembered as a child is revealed in a nightmarish confrontation with reality. Returning to the surrounding landscape of Germania II, the protagonist learns of the waste that has been systematically dumped into the river. Such a revelation, however, is not cast in a polemical language—the novella strays ever further from standard elements of narrative, breaking into a prose that is clearly poetic, as descriptions of the plant’s surrounding topography accumulate in symbolically rich images: “Past the black crystal cathedrals of coal, covered with frozen dead earth: fish like flitting gleams in the dark water-willows underground, in the water-willows filled with star-script. And they dream-swam past the prisms of coal, with the neon script of their swarms over the underground façades of coal, through the cities of coal, over the roofs of coal, half-rooved, unproved and sunken” (108). Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation is remarkable for handling Hilbig’s wordplay, conveying the mimetic properties of a language that partakes in the oozing objects it expresses.
In addition to the novellas, Old Rendering Plant, The Females, and The Tidings of the Trees, Cole’s recent English translation of his novel The Interim (2000) offers a more complete picture of Hilbig’s work. Moving into what appears to be more directly autobiographical territory, The Interim tells the story of a novelist—known only as ‘C.’—as he struggles to find his identity and purpose in the final years of the GDR. It is his bleakest novel, psychologically, as the feeling of suffocation is palpable on every page. Like many of his books, The Interim unfolds through highly nonlinear circles and flashbacks; memories seem to be embedded in deeper memories, and the third person narration engages in free indirect style. (Cole’s translation conveys the subtle shifts in time with extraordinary clarity.) C.—we learn—is an East German poet and writer who suffers from writer’s block and alcoholism; his tempestuous personal relations are fraught with treachery and paranoia. Echoing several elements of his novel ‘I’, The Interim explores the notion of the author as a self-creation. When C. is offered a visa to travel to West Germany for a reading tour, he embarks on a dizzying voyage that moves endlessly from Leipzig to Nuremberg, from Nuremberg to Berlin, and from Berlin to Munich and back again. Such loops in space and time confound the narrator’s own sense of cause and effect—the narrative partakes in the sense of inertia that must have dominated life in the GDR. Fueled by alcohol, paranoia, and pornography, C.’s journey is disrupted by his failed relationships and the feeling that time has already passed him by. A sense of historical and psychological vertigo is discernable here, as the accumulation of cities and flashbacks create a kaleidoscope of inertial stupefaction.
If many of Hilbig’s novellas operate with a high degree of abstraction in their exploration of space and time, The Interim is the most sustained and direct confrontation with the social and political nature of the East German regime. Hilbig focuses on the essential mendaciousness of life under “actually existing socialism” and the manufactured virtues of productivity, labor, and the ideals of technological progress: “He remembered once calling the twentieth century the century of lies.—The entire century was one big train of lies… In the form of a lie and loaded with lies that train had moved forward, moved through, moved past, with a locomotive as its symbol of leadership… the lie of progress formed the tracks for that train” (230). We are invited to glimpse scenes from C.’s childhood in the town of “M,” where he apprenticed as a stoker in a boiler room. (The scenes depicting the drudgery of labor are doubtless informed by Hilbig’s own experience.) Finding hours of solitude before the business of the day begins, C. manages to write poetry. His calling as writer originates as a kind of rebellion against the mindless celebration of labor in communism. Heaping his scorn against the blind productivism of the GDR, C. finds a measure of solace in his uselessness as a poet. The lie of progress—and the basic hollowness of the Cold War—are laid bare most explicitly in the Chernobyl disaster, treated here as the key event that would signal the essential barbarism of modernity. “The blind faith in humanity’s progress had been shaken as never before, and it had happened with in a political system that celebrated the notion of progress like no other” (268).
The Interim’s critique of the East German system does not, however, fail to direct its crosshairs at the West. Refusing the literary world a straightforward denunciation of communism and its repression—in the name of a celebration of western freedom—Hilbig’s novel suggests an undeniable convergence between the two systems in their capacity for standardization and coercion. As C. moves through the major West German cities during his reading tours, he observes the total commodification of life in cities drenched in neon advertisements. In language that is almost Marxist, C. decries the alienating effects of consumerism and the pseudo-freedom of the press: “The avowed freedom of the press had unmistakably degenerated to nothing except the freedom to take anything that could be thought, no matter what its nature, and process it so it was fit to be sold. All facts, and even non-facts, everything that could be shown or verbalized in any way, had to be rendered marketable, and for that purpose all symbols and images were permitted” (58). As C. traverses his divided country, the forms of coercion and unfreedom that characterized the GDR and its manufactured language seem to be easily transposed onto the West, where the commodity character of cultural goods squeezes out their individuality, capturing life in a gapless chain of commodities and spectacles.
As C. continues his reading tour, we learn of the numerous women he has been with, and of his progressively worsening alcoholism. After spending a brief period in detox in a clinic, C. remembers Hedda, the woman he seems to love, though his self-destructive ego cannot help but drive her away. The core of The Interim details their tortured relationship; we learn that she is also a writer, born at the end of the war in a camp for Eastern Europeans. (Her life is haunted by the suspicion that her parents were SS collaborators.) Just as C. continues to live in the shadow of historical catastrophe, Hedda’s life is similarly clouded by the trauma of violence. C. and Hedda’s relationship is doomed from the start by C.’s prodigious appetites. As their relationship deteriorates, Hilbig frames the action with extended fits of paranoia and self-doubt. When Hedda at last asks C. to move in with her in Nuremberg, he is thrown into an anxious frenzy; he can only respond by drowning himself in more drink and sex. At its least effective, the novel strains to include the theme of “God’s abandonment”—an unconvincing segue in a story already replete with the feeling of psychic and moral desolation. One senses that the disaster of C.’s life has already been accomplished, that no connection can redeem it from the disaster of history.
Even if The Interim more closely resembles the “big postwar German novel” in its engagement with love and power politics than his novellas, it still returns us to the one subject of his work—identity. Split between his roots in the East and his literary persona in the West, C. can only exist in the interim between two impossible zones. In the GDR, he functions as an object of the minister of culture, a cog in the machinery of the system of propaganda. Like many of his characters, C. operates in the margins of society, but he recognizes his identity as writer is something fabricated, a defensive reaction to the impossibility of freedom in his social world. In the West, C. is a public persona, an author who creates through the mediations of a marketized cultural system. At its core, The Interim asks if identity can constitute itself, free from its social and political definitions: “Identity, however, cannot be developed purely from the inside out, from the hermetically sealed interior; it also needs an external, comparative perspective” (74). The tragedy of The Interim thus returns us to the underlying problem in all of Hilbig’s work, which asks if identity can be found in a world that seems to turn on its liquidation. While small glimmers of possibility emerge here, we can only feel that Hilbig’s characters are fated to live in a doomed world. And if the question of identity’s possibility is the red thread in this literature, Hilbig manages to disrupt his theme from its easily calcified function by breathing new life into his materials. Further translations of his work will doubtless continue to light up our understanding of this great artist, a writer who shaped his life and work in the tradition of the grandest of pessimisms.
Charles Prusik is a philosophy instructor, a writer, and a critical theorist. He received his PhD in philosophy in 2017. His research specializes in critical theory and political economy, and he is the author of Adorno and Neoliberalism: The Critique of Exchange Society (Bloomsbury Publishing 2020). He has published articles on the Frankfurt School and aesthetics.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 2, 2021